Culture Corner

Television Series Review: Mr. Robot and Gomorrah 

Bernie Langs

Caution: spoilers ahead!


There is a widely-held notion that television is presently in the midst of a golden age and that the quality and diversity in programming has never been better for the medium. One might generally associate the phrase “golden age” with eras of creativity in cultural history, such as the glory days of Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, while thinking of television more in terms of crassness and the lowest possible taste (think the Kardashians or the Housewives reality series). Yet I can’t deny that TV is offering many more stimulating choices these days than big Hollywood studio films. The best current television shows are filmed cinematically to big budget movie standards and the writing and scripts of these series offer superlative plot devices and new, untested ideas without falling into the trap of typical clichés that plague so much of our visual entertainment.

Two series in particular have hooked me into becoming a loyal viewer. USA Network’s Mr. Robot revolves around the exploits of a young, brilliant, socially-challenged hacker. The other, the Sundance Channel’s Gomorrah, is an import from Italy based around the inner workings of the criminal mob in the city and surrounding region of present day Naples.

While Mr. Robot is the more traditional television fare of the two, it successfully pushes the boundaries of the medium in many ways. Created, written and directed by Egyptian-American, Sam Esmail, it follows the exploits of Elliott Alderson, played with disturbing nuance by Rami Malek. Elliott begins as a kind of hacker vigilante, punishing the abusive people he can gain access to via his superb computer skills, and soon becomes entangled in a plot hatched by a group of misfit hackers to destroy the computer systems of a massive corporation, E Corp (dubbed Evil Corp). Their hope is to change the world by eliminating the records of most credit card debt in America thus freeing the populace from the grips of the greed of capitalism.

There are several innovative ways that make Mr. Robot unique. Elliott is an incredibly brilliant young programmer, yet his social anxieties and mental health issues, sometimes used to his advantage, come close to completely destroying him, while bringing down friends and familyl. Drug addiction, hallucination, paranoia, loneliness, intense anger, sexual confusion, and a host of other problems including the anxiety of breaking the law are what makes Elliott’s world a terrifying place. Elliott’s personality problems make for tense, dramatic and deeply disturbing viewing and are original to the concept of a star lead in a serialized show.

The plot to undo E Corp and change the course of history involves a great cast of characters including Elliott’s co-workers at a cybersecurity firm and the insiders at E Corp, in particular their own technology executive, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom). E Corp’s CEO, Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), is played as a wealthy hard-nosed, coldhearted corporate leader, yet his personality has enough individuality and complexity to separate him from being a simple television villain.

Mr. Robot has completed two seasons. I’ve viewed the first and one quarter of the second. The huge problem it faces comes from two imposing challenges: the title character of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) has been revealed late in season one as the ghost and mirage of Elliott’s father and the more difficult plot line that since a major hack has occurred, the show must enter an even deeper world of unreality. Many shows jump the shark at such a crossroad. I feared that might happen with Mr. Robot’s second season, after the intense and wonderfully stimulating drama of the first. The first two episodes of season two were a little off pace, as if Esmail had written himself into a corner. He seemed to be too intent on keeping us aware of Elliott’s completely separated internal world to the point of extreme. Yet, episode three hooked me right back into the dystopian nightmare of Elliott’s life and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Gomorrah is simply an unbelievably fantastic show. I can hardly comprehend that a television executive would think of airing on a major cable network a series in Italian with English subtitles. Gomorrah is shot in the back streets and suburbs of Naples and we get to see views of Italy that tourists and vacationers could never imagine. Horribly conceived apartment complexes litter areas filled with the near-poor who have little hope of a good life. This poverty and general societal depression enables the mob family syndicates to move in to recruit dispirited young men to join their ranks with fast cash and an exciting life. They don’t blink an eye when these youths wind up murdered in the undertaking of their exploits, much of which centers around bringing cheap drugs to the area for desperate junkies and users.

Gomorrah is beautifully filmed with grittiness and often showcases a world of deep shadows, dark alleys, and junkyard abandoned factories. None of the actors and actresses are familiar to American audiences and all of the performances are seamless and powerful. It’s almost akin to watching a fast-paced documentary on Italian crime. The action follows the travails of a crime family led by the ruthless Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), his wife, the incredibly strong, stoic, and mean-spirited Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), his son, Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito), who undertakes an amazing personality shift in the course of a handful of episodes, and the gang’s most trusted lieutenant, Ciro (Marco D’Amore), who dons the nickname “Immortal” and who is incredibly heartless and ruthless. Ciro has such dynamic personality qualities and charisma that viewers may find themselves wishing beyond hope that he could control his more violent tendencies and become a dynamic leader.

A show like Gomorrah could have fallen victim into a trap of common plot devices and stereotypical characters seen in a glut of films and television shows on the Mafia. Yet, it succeeds as a social statement of the politics and society facing Italy and much of Europe today and feels incredibly current on its take of what causes such a blight on the face of Italy. After each episode I’m left feeling amazed.

The show was preceded by a 2008 feature film, both of which were based on the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano. His fiction and investigative reporting of the Camorra crime syndicate has led to him currently living under police protection. I cannot think of any other dramatic television show that is so reflective of a lifestyle that is unusual to our everyday reality than Gomorrah. The first season has aired in America with the second on the way. One hopes Gomorrah can keep up the fantastic pace it has set.